Virginia Misdemeanors in General District Court ("GDC")
General District Court is where criminal misdemeanors and misdemeanor traffic offenses in Virginia are heard. GDC is a court "not of record," and there is no transcript or recording of the proceedings. This gives you the benefit of a fresh (de novo) appeal to Circuit Court should the GDC judge not agree with our presentation of the case. The possible results of going to General District Court vary widely with the jurisdictions. For instance, in one jurisdiction, you may be able to get a charge reduced or dismissed if you do community service or other types of activities. In another jurisdiction, this may never be a possibility. It's crucial to have a lawyer familiar with the particular jurisdiction you are charged in, as preparation before the court date can be just as important as what happens once you get to court.
Matters in General District Court can be resolved through a trial, or through a guilty plea.
Virginia General District Court Trials
When you are charged with a misdemeanor in General District Court, the government must prove that you broke the law, beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor (called a "Commonwealth's Attorney") must therefore present evidence and witnesses to the Court, to meet that burden. The proceeding in which they do so is called a trial. A trial in General District Court is always in front of a judge, and is called a bench trial. You are entitled to a jury trial in any matter that carries potential jail time, but your lawyer will need to appeal to Circuit Court first in order to exercise your right to the jury trial.
GDC trials are a bit different than the trials you may have seen on television or in movies. Attorneys rarely give long opening statements, the pace is much quicker, and the judge almost always renders the verdict immediately after the close of the evidence. Remember, a GDC docket is usually crowded with many cases, and the court must get through all of them by the end of the day. Trials are still, however, governed by the Virginia Rules of Evidence, and an experienced lawyer will be able to navigate through the proceeding and avoid potential harmful objections.
Because there is no recording of proceedings in GDC, if you do proceed to trial, you may want to bring your own court reporter. The court reporter fee must be paid privately by the defendant, and cannot be set up through the court. In your case, we will advise you on whether we should hire a court reporter, and will be happy to explain why it is or is not necessary, before we incur the cost.
Virginia General District Court Guilty Pleas
Your misdemeanor or traffic matter in General District Court can, alternatively, be resolved through a guilty plea. Often, the Commonwealth will offer to either drop some charges, reduce the severity of charges, or recommend a more favorable sentence in exchange for your guilty plea. A guilty plea saves them the time, trouble, and expense of proving that you broke the law through a trial. In jurisdictions where the dockets are quite large and take a long time to get through, prosecutors have a vested interest in resolving as many cases as possible through plea bargains.The procedure for a guilty plea is much different than for a trial in General District Court.
Once the agreement is reached, your lawyer must ensure that you understand all of the rights you are giving up by foregoing a trial. These include the right to have a jury decide your case, the right to require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the right to remain silent, and others. You must also fully understand the consequences of your plea - you will have a criminal or traffic conviction on your record, and will have to satisfy a sentence, which can consist of jail time, a fine, or other obligations to the court such as probation.
When the court calls your case, your lawyer will inform the court that an agreement has been reached and you intend to plead guilty. In most jurisdictions, the Commonwealth's Attorney will give a brief recitation of the facts so that the Court can ensure a law was, in fact, broken. Your attorney will have an opportunity to add any important facts the judge needs to know. The judge will make sure you have read the form which lists your rights, and will make sure you understand your sentence. The judge will also ask you how you plead, to which you will reply "Guilty." Then, you will be sent to the clerk's office to make arrangement to pay court costs and any fine.
Before you make the decision to plead guilty in any case, it is imperative that you or your attorney make sure the Commonwealth could, in fact, prove the case against you. You must also make sure that you do not have any hesitation about saying you are guilty of the crime charged. You will only have one chance to challenge the government and assert your innocence. Once you plead guilty, that chance is foregone. It goes without saying that your attorney should have investigated the case, and reviewed the Commonwealth's evidence, before advising you on the merits of a plea offer.
For every client that we represent in a Virginia General District Court misdemeanor, we fully investigate the case before we get to court, by interviewing witnesses where appropriate and reviewing all of the available evidence. We will meet with the police officers who charged you, to find out what they will testify to in court. Finally, we have extensive experience negotiating with prosecutors, when appropriate, to gain you the best possible plea bargain.
Virginia Misdemeanors in Juvenile and Domestic Relations ("JDR") Court
A subset of General District Court is Juvenile and Domestic Relations ("JDR") court. This is a special court where the following types of offenses are charged and heard: crimes against children, such as abuse, neglect, assault, among others; crimes committed by juveniles; and domestic disputes between household and family members. The procedures are exactly the same as for General District Court, except that juvenile cases are sealed, and the public cannot access the records of JDR court in the same way they can access other records.